ZBLAN and Exotic Fibers

Extremely high quality optical fibers with much lower attenuation and much wider wavelength range (spectrum window).

Last updated: 2020-05-31

Status

Made In Space and FOMS have demonstrated pulling ZBLAN optical fiber on ISS and are planning further missions.10 11

Physical Optics Corporation and Flawless Fiber status is in development.

Very latest research is pointing towards Earth-based solutions using very rapid cooling and magnetic fields.

In 2020, NASA selected further proposals from Made In Space, Apsidal and DSTAR Communications for glass and optics manufacturing in space.

Applications

  • Telecommunications.
  • Lasers for medical & scientific applications (photonics).
  • Military applications like night vision and infrared countermeasures.
  • Remote sensing payloads.
  • Thermal imaging.
  • Spectroscopy (imaging).
  • Radiation resistant data links.
  • Glass alloys.

Why & Solution

Making ZBLAN glass results in crystallization or the formation of tiny imperfections. Research has shown that it does not happen in microgravity.

Telecommunications sector is facing exponential growth in bandwidth transmission. With almost half of the population in the world not yet online and much higher bandwidth applications like 5G networks, 4K streaming and virtual reality applications still to come, the growth will not be slowing down any time soon. Current solution is to keep building new undersea cables.

Major advantages of ZBLAN are much lower attenuation (signal weakening) and much wider wavelength range. Lower attenuation would reduce the need for repeaters, which are also a security risk and increase latency. Wider wavelength range would allow the transfer of much more data through ZBLAN cable by using many lasers with different wavelengths. There is a large number of spacecraft, scientific, medical and defense equipment working in the infrared wavelength range.

In 2020, NASA selected further proposals from Made In Space, Apsidal and DSTAR Communications for glass and optics manufacturing in space:

  • Apsidal of Los Angeles is developing a Universal Glass Optics Manufacturing Module capable of processing various types of complex glass in space from which fibers, magnetic fibers, super-continuum sources, capillary optics and adiabatic tapers can be drawn. One of their key innovations is a custom Laser Doppler Sensor for real-time in-situ analysis and feedback control of the manufacturing process. Additionally, this technology is Artificial Intelligence (AI) assisted to be adaptive to optimize production in a low-Earth orbit environment. The microgravity environment of space is needed because convection and sedimentation in development on Earth causes separation of complex glass elements creating crystallization, thus creating defects which reduce performance. Market areas for products from this module include specialty fibers for communications, medical diagnostics, remote sensing, X-ray optics, and laser processing.
  • DSTAR Communications of Woodland Hills, California, has established a team to create an external material processing platform on the International Space Station with autonomous, high throughput manufacturing capability. Markets for products manufactured by this facility include infrared optical fibers in medical and defense applications and ultralight solar arrays for commercial and military space platforms. The unique microgravity environment of space eliminates convection and sedimentation that occur on Earth, enabling the manufacture of premium quality materials and products with fewer defects and improved performance. In addition, the vacuum of space enables vacuum deposition in the same facility for improved reliability and improved functionality of the resulting products. The DSTAR Communications team includes partners FOMS of San Diego, California, Visioneering Space of Boise, Idaho, and Lunar Resources of Houston.
  • Made In Space will be developing a Glass Alloy Manufacturing Machine (GAMMA), an experimental system designed to investigate how glass alloys form without the effects of gravity-induced flaws. The microgravity environment of space is expected to enable much higher quality glass products by eliminating the Earth-based impacts of convection, sedimentation, and solute buildup, which lead to nucleation, or crystal-forming sites in the materials. This system could improve processes for commercial product development. Product applications include optical fiber, lenses, and optical devices across several market segments including telecommunications, sensors and laser technology industries.

Companies







FOMS (Fiber Optics Manufacturing in Space) is a very small US startup founded in 2015.

Have received a total of $873 000 from NASA SBIR Phase I and II programs to develop Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing (SPACEFORM). Phase I was meant to increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) from TRL3 to TRL5 and Phase II from TRL6 to TRL8. FOMS has also demonstrated fiber production on parabolic aircraft flights in 2014. In the end of 2017, FOMS expected to launch their payload capable of producting multiple kilometer of fiber by the end of 2018. It launched in 2019 and produced fiber. They also received an award from Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). FOMS holds a Trademark on SpaceFiber™. The NASA project funding was protested by Made In Space, which was dismissed.
Fiber Optic Manufacturing in Space (FOMS) Inc. presented the results Nov. 7 of its successful campaign to produce optical fiber on the International Space Station.
FOMS “successfully completed the calibration of the manufacturing hardware and demonstrated the first optical fiber manufacturing on orbit,” FOMS Principal Investigator Dmitry Starodubov announced at the 6th Workshop on Specialty Optical Fiber and Their Applications in Charleston, South Carolina. “The microgravity fiber demonstrated better uniformity than the fiber produced on the ground. This unique achievement is providing the basis for government and commercial utilization of our revolutionary space manufacturing platform.”
To produce optical fiber in orbit, FOMS created a suitcase size platform called Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing or SpaceFORM. FOMS sent two SpaceFORMs to ISS on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo resupply flight in April. Astronauts helped install the platforms. The experiments were then monitored and controlled remotely by FOMS from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The experiment was returned by a SpaceX Dragon in June. NASA accepted delivery of the first optical fiber produced on orbit by FOMS on August 26.


Revenue Estimation

One kilogram of ZBLAN yields 2.2 kilometers of ZBLAN fiber.1

Another source claimed that in theory a kilogram of preform can produce 3 km of fiber, but thickness not specified. 3

Articles by NASA state that one kilogram of exotic glass feedstock can be expected to produce from 3 to 7 kilometers of fibers in under an hour in microgravity. 3

Selling 2 km of fiber at $150 per meter would total to $300,000. Best case scenario woud be selling 3 km of fiber at $1000 per meter for a total of $3,000,000.

Cost Estimation

According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” from 2017 by US Science and Technology Policy Institute, ZBLAN sells for $175 to $1000 per meter, depending on the quality of the fiber (ThorLabs, FiberLabs) .1

Another study set commercial market price for ZBLAN fibers at $150/meter to $300/meter and best quality exotic fibers from $300/meter to $3,000/meter. 4

Market Size Estimation

Fiber optic market
According to Grand View Research, the fibre optics industry had gross global sales of €4.7 billion in 2015. 5

Another study estimated the fibre optic market will expand at a CAGR of 10% during 2017-2023 and is anticipated to reach the valuation of €5.2 billion by the 2023. 6

According to IBISWorld, the revenue for the optical fibre and cable manufacturing industry is expected to increase 16.0% to $53.75 billion in 2018 and has been growing at an average annualized rate of 19.2%.7

ZBLAN market
According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” published in 2017, the sales of ZBLAN form a very small part of the $3 billion market, but analyst estimated that ZBLAN might be able to capture sales of €260 million to €350 million annually, which would be 10 to 13 percent of the current market. They authors estimated that iff ZBLAN increases its market share by 1 percentage point per year over the next decade, by 2028 its share is likely to be in that range.1

Figure on slide 18 released by NASA Emerging Space Office in 2014 illustrates the potential market share for ZBLAN applications and sets the total at $20 billion.2

In 2006, ZBLAN fibre market was estimated to be $7.56 billion per year. NASA published news based on Kessler Market Intelligence: Spectroscopy $15 Million, Laser Surgery $25 Million, Imaging Fiber Bundle $15 Million, Telecommunications $7500 Million.8

In 1998, NASA estimated that the commercial potential for ZBLAN to be $2.5 billion a year in the communications industry.9

Earthly Solution Risk

Very high. Research published in 2018 by Teng-Cheong Ong et al. found that crystallization is suppressed when ZBLAN is cooled very rapidly.

NASA is licensing similar technology: " Combination of a vertical magnetic field and a rapid cool down from the crystallite melting temperature will ensure that no crystals are present in the preform after processing."

Risks

  • Market size (niche market)
  • Number of customers
  • Preform cost
  • Transmission loss versus cost
  • Patents

References

  1. Keith W. Crane et al. Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station. IDA Science & Technology Policy Institute. Published in March 2017. Source

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  2. Ioana Cozmuta et al. Space Portal NASA Ames Research Center. Microgravity-Based Commercialization Opportunities for Material Sciences and Life Sciences: A Silicon Valley Perspective. Source

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  3. Ioana Cozmuta and Daniel J. Rasky. Exotic Optical Fibers and Glasses: Innovative Material Processing Opportunities in Earth's Orbit. Published in 2017 in New Space. Source

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  4. CMAPP: Commercial Microgravity Applications Pilot Project. Source

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  5. Fiber Optics Market Size, Grand View Research, 2018. Source

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  6. Fiber Optic Market Share, Market Research Future, 2018. Source

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  7. Optical Fiber and Cable Manufacturing Industry in China, IBISWorld, 2018. Source

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  8. ZBLAN Fiber market Prediction. Source: Kessler Market Intelligence, Newport, RI. Source

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  9. ZBLAN commercial potential, Dave Dooling, NASA, 1998. Source

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  10. FOMS reports high-quality ZBLAN production on ISS Source

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  11. Made In Space to Step Up Off-Earth Production of Valuable Optical Fiber Source

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